Cheating, groupies, big money and drunken brawls: how chess went rock’n’roll | Chess


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One of chess’s best-known grandmasters is considering a theory so outlandish that, until three weeks ago, it lurked only in the murkiest corners of the internet. “Vibrating anal beads?” says Simon Williams, a popular commentator known as Ginger GM. He pauses to consider the claims, amplified by Elon Musk, that a remote-controlled sex toy could help a player cheat. And then he delivers a withering dismissal. “It’s completely surreal,” he replies. “Laughable. Monty Pythonesque. It’s an interesting idea. But it’s not going to work.”

Tell that to the world’s media, who have reported every juicy twist and sordid allegation of chess’s cheating scandal ever since the world champion, Magnus Carlsen, quit the prestigious $500,000 (£447,000) Sinquefield Cup last month after losing to an American teenager, Hans Niemann.

Seemingly overnight, chess has become part soap opera, part whodunnit. Niemann, 19, insists he is willing to play naked to prove he is now “clean”, after admitting to cheating online when he was 12 and 16. However, Carlsen doesn’t believe him, and resigned after just one move when they faced each other again in a recent online tournament.

But as the story rumbles on, it tells something else too. Chess has radically changed. The fusty stereotype of a game played by socially awkward men and boys in draughty church halls and in pub rooms cloistered away from regular punters is no longer the norm. Instead we have entered a new era of chess: younger, hipper – even a little rock’n’roll.

Magnus Carlsen in 2020.
Magnus Carlsen in 2020. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Online, a new breed of glamorous chess “streamers” has sprung up, some of whom earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. Millions more are now playing and watching. Meanwhile, at the top level, stories abound of cheating, excessive drinking, groupies, even death threats – if not yet at the same time.

Much of this is down to Carlsen. The world’s best player for more than a decade, he is young (31), witty and whip-smart – and he has a hinterland outside the game. Carlsen used to model for G-Star Raw, came 10th out of 7.5 million players in the 2019 Fantasy Premier League competition, and is also a decent poker player. His company, Play Magnus Group, was recently sold for about $82m.

But another notable development in chess’s growth came at the end of 2017, when the biggest chess website,, pivoted towards making the game an esport by partnering with the streaming platform Twitch. Then came the multiplier effects of the Covid lockdown and the Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit, which sent chess’s popularity into the stratosphere. In August 2022 the popular and free website Lichess hosted more than 92m games – compared with 37m in August 2019 and 6m in August 2016.

“During the pandemic was also incredibly smart in recruiting esports stars to play in a series of amateur tournaments called PogChamps,” says the grandmaster Daniel King, who also runs the YouTube channel Power Play Chess. “They became absolutely massive, and chess really crossed over.”

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit. Photograph: Phil Bray/AP

Suddenly, players such as 34-year-old Hikaru Nakamura, who was once ranked second in the world behind Carlsen in classical chess (which takes hours to play), were spending far more time streaming their online “blitz” or “bullet” games, where they have just three minutes to make all their moves. Nakamura would do this while answering questions on chat and giving blow-by-blow accounts of the latest chess drama.

“Nakamura was noted for being fantastically strong at bullet chess long before it was sort of hip to play online, and he has turned into the perfect chess streamer, making millions,” says King. “He’s gobby. He’s opinionated. He doesn’t care about upsetting people. He’s basically just hacked an online algorithm that means you’re going to be successful.”

Nakamura aside, most chess content producers are not among the world’s elite. But, as Jennifer Shahade, the two-time US chess champion and author of Chess Queens, points out, they have found a way to connect with new chess audiences – and they work hard to maintain it. “A lot of the superstar streamers are incredibly talented, academically and socially,” she says. “Alexandra Botez was the CEO of a tech startup in Silicon Valley before she decided to try streaming.”

Among the new breed of female streamers is 20-year-old Anna Cramling from Sweden. Two years ago, she was planning to study international relations or politics at university. Instead, she has become a popular chess personality, despite being ranked about 17,000th in the world.

Cramling has succeeded because she produces content that is creative, universal and very watchable. A video of her playing a street game against Carlsen in July has attracted 3m views on YouTube. Another, entitled I Trolled This Chess Hustler Into Thinking I Was a Beginner, has been watched 2.4m times.

Cramling is probably now better known than her mother, Pia, a grandmaster who has been one of the top female players for nearly 40 years. “She was really known during her time,” Cramling says of her mother. “But now there’s a new way of being known in chess, and it doesn’t mean you have to be the best in the world. It’s a sign of the times.”

Anna Cramling plays the secretive player Rey Enigma in a tournament in Madrid.
Anna Cramling plays the secretive player Rey Enigma in a tournament in Madrid. Photograph: Miguel Pereira/Getty Images

Cramling says that most of her audience is between 18 and 25 and overwhelmingly male – about 95%, according to YouTube stats. Crucially, they are willing to pay subscriptions or watch advertising to support chess players. Levy Rozman, AKA GothamChess, is said to make more than $1m a year from YouTube. A leak of Twitch subscriptions last year suggested that Nakamura earned $773,000 from that platform alone, while Botez and her sister, Andrea, made $400,000.

Last year, Fide, the chess governing body, tried to capitalise on the growing interest from women in chess by signing a sponsorship deal with the breast enlargement company Motiva, which was immediately criticised as “gross” and “misogynistic”. The renowned chess photographer Maria Emelianova says many are still unhappy and it remains “a running joke” behind the scenes on the women’s circuit.

There has been plenty of other drama off the board too: grandmasters regularly sniping at each other on social media, players falling out over rogue chess moderators, or even, in Dutch grandmaster Anish Giri’s case, having their private messages hacked and leaked. Last year a video emerged of Nakamura wrestling in the street with another grandmaster, Eric Hansen, after a drunken blitz game turned sour, watched on by other bemused players.

The combination of alcohol and being on the road can also make relationships between players – and even chess groupies – more common than you might think. “People often end up getting together,” says one source, who preferred not to be named. “It’s not that unusual. We even joke about the ‘B tournament’, meaning: ‘Are you with anyone? Are you seeing anyone?’ And then the groupie side of it has always been there, although not as much as rock bands.”

Old-timers will tell you some of this happened back in the day, too, although with no social media, it usually remained in the shadows. At the 1986 Chess Olympiad, for instance, the British player Nigel Short was furious that his rival Tony Miles had been put on board 1 instead of him. But it was only when Miles died in 2001 that Short revealed how he had got his own back. “I obtained a measure of revenge not only by eclipsing Tony in terms of chess performance,” he wrote, “but also by sleeping with his girlfriend, which was definitely satisfying but perhaps not entirely gentlemanly.”

Meanwhile, the grandmaster and philosopher Jonathan Rowson remembers how alcohol affected the response of a Russian grandmaster, whom he beat in a prestigious tournament in 2004. “It was a perfectly straightforward game, without any reason to think that cheating was involved,” he says. “But when he saw me later, to my surprise, he said: ‘I see you on the street, I kill you. Understand?’ I was really shocked, even though he was a bit of a lunatic and might have been drunk at the time, because it was still a kind of death threat.”

Hikaru Nakamura.
Hikaru Nakamura. Photograph: Andrew Halseid-Budd/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, alcohol and chess still mix. “A lot of players are heavy drinkers,” says Emelianova. “Some have to go into this dry state for the entirety of the tournament just to be able to finish it on the same level. One chess player is famous for finishing his final game, and 10 minutes later, coming back with his eyes being like glass. And you know that he doesn’t see you any more.

“It shows how stressful the game is,” she adds. “Sometimes afterwards, a player can’t fall asleep the entire night because they keep replaying moves in their head.”

There is sometimes a darker side too. In 2020, Botez warned it was still common for male players to use their age and position to go on the “hunt” for women and girls. “It has been going on for so long and no one blinks an eye,” she said. “The extent to which people never say anything and find things OK is pretty spooky.” Other women echoed similar concerns to the Guardian, but none wanted to go public.

In recent years many newcomers have become hooked on the addictive thrill of seeing their rating rise after they win a game, as well as the jolts of adrenaline they get as they take multiple decisions while their clock ticks down.

But if they hang around long enough on a chess website, they will find out what it’s like to face a cheat. In March 2020 alone, closed nearly 10,000 accounts for fair play violations, including seven titled players. “Cheating is a chess players’ curse,” admits Rowson, whose book The Moves That Matter deftly explores the relationship between the game and life. “Because you are always asking: ‘How is this adversary trying to get me?’ There is this inherent necessity for vigilance that can spill over into paranoia.

“People forget chess is also a sublimation of war and a ritual encounter with death,” he adds. “Because in effect, your life’s on the line. So the stakes are high. People feel it.”

Those stakes are even higher at elite level, where big money is at stake, suspicion is rampant and slam-dunk proof with computer analysis is possible. Fide’s chief anti-cheating expert, Dr Kenneth W Regan, believes Niemann has not cheated in the past two years. However some, such as the Fide master Yosha Iglesias, have raised concerns over the American’s incredible accuracy in some games, using the website ChessBase’s Let’s Check analysis, which compares a player’s moves with the best computer ones. and Carlsen also both believe that Niemann has cheated more recently than his last indiscretion in 2020. In a statement tweeted last week, Carlsen made his feelings clear: “When Niemann was invited last minute to the 2022 Sinquefield Cup, I strongly considered withdrawing prior to the event,” he said. “I ultimately chose to play. I believe that Niemann has cheated more – and more recently – than he has publicly admitted.

Hans Niemann (right) playing Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup.
Hans Niemann (right) playing Carlsen in the Sinquefield Cup. Photograph: Crystal Fuller/Saint Louis Chess Club

“His over-the-board progress has been unusual, and throughout our game in the Sinquefield Cup I had the impression that he wasn’t tense or even fully concentrating on the game in critical positions, while outplaying me as black in a way I only think a handful of players can do. This game contributed to changing my perspective.”

For now, though, there is no hard proof being offered by Carlsen. Only an intuition that something is not quite right. For many that is unfair on Niemann, who says his improvement has come from studying 10 hours a day.

Other players have waded into the controversy. Perhaps the 2018 world title challenger Fabiano Caruana put it best when he analysed one of Niemann’s matches from earlier this year. “This game to me is quite extraordinary,” he said. “It is either a genius or it’s fishy. Incredible game. To win so flawlessly without any mistakes, against a strong opponent with not entirely natural play in a complicated position. I’d be so proud to win this game.”

So where does all this leave chess? In a fug of suspicion that seems unlikely to lift any time soon. Carlsen’s critics maintain that he was unfair and reckless to damn Niemann, which could lead to the teenager, in effect, being “cancelled”, by getting fewer invitations to major events. Others, though, believe that the Norwegian is right to shine a light on an issue that blights the game and has festered for far too long.

“People are paranoid,” admits the US grandmaster Robert Hess. “Because when they play they know there may be cheaters amongst their midst. Everyone is on edge. And because there is no players’ association within chess, there is nowhere to speak to and say, ‘Hey we need to have a forum and talk about this’.”

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